he Collins Pocket Edition of Dickens's works was issued in 1905 to serve the burgeoning market for cheap, portable reprints of the great novelist's works. Indeed, although he had been dead some three decades, a Dickens "boom" was well underway, as signaled not only by the publication of such cheap editions but also by the founding of the Dickens Fellowship in London, and, as a harbinger of the early Dickens Revival, the numerous productions of Wills and Langbridge's The Only Way, a theatrical adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities which ran for 168 performances at the Royal Lyceum, London, starring Sir John Martin-Harvey, in 1899 before touring the provinces.
The twelve plates by A. A. Dixon for the Collins Pocket Edition of the 1859 novel have qualities of both a new medium, the photograph, and a traditional medium, the oil painting, as if implying that these illustrations for A Tale of Two Cities are both A. A. Dixon's illustrations for the Collins Pocket Edition of A Tale of Two Citiesic representation and historical record, the keynote being "The Surrender of the Bastille" (frontispiece). Though Dixon's painterly style is effective, overall his dozen illustrations are not equal to Phiz's steel etchings in narrative power and wealth of historical detail. Nevertheless, Dixon conveys a clear sense of the period in which the tale is set with, for example, the elegantly dressed, but emotionally detached Marquis in his ornate carriage contrasting the distraught father in his simple wooden shoes in the picture entitled "'Killed!' shrieked the man" (Ch. 7: Series 3, Issue 2, page 3), virtually a tableau vivant or still from a stage production.
Dixon's Edwardian illustrations, reveal, despite their small dimensions (10.8 cm high by 8.0 cm wide, on pages measuring 15 cm by 10 cm), a sure sense of composition, tending towards scenes between a limited number of characters, such "Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton" and "Pray control your agitation" (Ch. 4: Mr. Lorry breaking the news to Lucy of her father's having survived years of incarceration in the Bastille), utilizing juxtaposition and contrast, and often merely sketching in the background, as if the characters are in focus, and the backdrop out of focus, photographically speaking. If we compare a scene such as "Madame Defarge knitted steadily" (Book 2, Ch. 16: in the St. Antoine wine shop) with its counterpart in Phiz's better known series, "The Wineshop" to accompany the chapter "Still Knitting," we can easily appreciate the subtleties of the later illustrator's style. Although he does not support the figures of the lower-middle-class Defarges and the respectably dressed stranger with the same volume of detail that Phiz provides in his etching, Dixon conveys the aloof, almost icy detachment of the couple which is different from the less apprehensive, more comfortable demeanour of Phiz's shopkeepers.
Those plates from Dixon's narrative-pictorial sequence not reproduced in The Dickens Magazine, Series 3, are generally his less effective efforts. The one on the cover of the final issue of the third series is perhaps the best of the dozen. In Dixon's twelfth and culminating illustration, Sidney Carton reassuringly holds the right hand of the little seamstress, "To the guillotine, all aristocrats!" (Book 3, Ch. 15). The couple is being driven out of the picture, towards their fate, but is much engaged in the immediate present. In the midst of the action, Dixon touchingly focuses on the attorney's self-command as he attempts to comfort a young woman caught up in events far beyond her understanding. In the left foreground is the angry Jacobin (merely designated as a "man" in the letter-press) who cries out against the unjust aristocrats, although ironically neither of these victims is in fact either exploitative or upper class. Dixon's tumbril is better realised than in any other A. A. Dixon's illustrations for the Collins Pocket Edition of A Tale of Two Cities's illustration of this moment, an emblem of the historicity of this narrative-pictorial series. A faint glow of light sets off Carton's head, visually implying the transfiguration reified in the narrator's invoking the passion of Christ in "I am the Resurrection and the Life." Occurring in a "pocket" edition, Dixon's plates were widely accessible in early twentieth-century Britain, and therefore conditioned many readers' responses to Dickens's text at a time of renewed interest in one of the previous century's greatest novelists.
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Il. A. A. Dixon. London: Collins, 1905. (From the personal collection of George Gorniak, Editor of The Dickens Magazine.)
___. (1859). A Tale of Two Cities, ed. Andrew Sanders. World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
___. (1859). A Tale of Two Cities, ed. George Woodcock. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.
Gorniak, George, ed. The Dickens Magazine, Series 3: A Tale of Two Cities [in four parts, issued twice a year]. Grayswood, Surrey: Euromed Publications, February 2004 to August 2005. http://www.geocities.com/grayswoodpress/dickens.html
Last modified 2 November 2013